The compact kitchen at Buffalo Wings & Rings' EastGate store in Cincinnati serves as both a testing ground for new equipment and a hands-on training facility for new franchisees.
See our companion article Buffalo Wings & Rings Equipment.
By Janice Cha
You could call Cincinnati-based Buffalo Wing & Rings a wings machine. Not only does the chain crank out its signature wings at 47 units in 14 states, it also cranks out profitable stores. Last year the chain nearly doubled in size with the opening of 23 stores and raked in revenues of about $36 million. This year's plans call for an additional 20 openings and estimated revenues of about $65 million.
Proving that it's serious about advancing the concept, Buffalo Wings & Rings last October opened a unique restaurant less than a mile from its headquarters at Cincinnati's popular EastGate Mall. This store, dubbed the Int'l. Training Center, has an important mission: It serves as a testing ground for new equipment while offering new franchisees a place for practical, hands-on training.
At the same time, its kitchen turns out a nonstop stream of buffalo wings, signature curly fries (a.k.a. "rings"), burgers and a variety of other made-to-order productsto the tune of 250 meals per day.
A Look Around The Kitchen
Buffalo Wings & Rings' expansion success depends in large part on the training center kitchen. With its formalized training setup and ability to test new equipment, this kitchen allows Buffalo execs to learn what works, how future stores should be configured and which equipment will be the most efficient for a wide number of stores.
This kitchen has also taught the chain how to do more in limited space. The back-of-house layout, which occupies about 25% of the total footprint, features a cooking area so compact that you can practically stand in one spot and access most of it. Peak service times require only three to four people to fill food orders, and staffers take a minimum of steps to complete an order.
Let's start our tour at the expo station, where you'll find 16 sauce-filled squeeze bottles aligned in pre-determined order in two racks in front of the counter. On the counter are two pump containers with more sauce, plus large bowls for saucing the Buffalo-style wings. At eye-level, laminated menu cards attached to the lower edge of the pass-through window give visual reminders about food presentation. And above and to the right, video monitors communicate food orders to the fry-cook.
To the left of the expo station is the cold-prep area where salads, wraps, gyros and quesadillas are assembled. For items that require a grilled protein, the griddle and charbroiler are immediately behind, just a few steps away.
The Heart Of The Operation
If a restaurant could be thought of as having an engine, Buffalo Wings & Rings would be powered primarily by its fryers. Nearly 40% of the chain's menu items involve frying. The restaurant's heavy-duty battery consists of two three-compartment, split-vat fryers that give operators a total of 12 fry areas, each with 6-lb. oil capacity.
The concept's wide range of deep-fried menu itemsthe list includes popular buffalo-style wings, boneless wings and chicken tenders, batter-dipped mushrooms, fish and shrimp, corn dogs, nachos and potatoesmade the split-vat fryer battery a natural spec for the Buffalo Wings & Rings' team. The six vats are divided by barriers that prevent flavor migration from one to the next, with compartments dedicated to specific products.
Moving from left to right, the first and second vats are used for wings, the third and fourth for fries and appetizers, and the fifth and sixth for seafood and chicken tenders. The tenders are hand breaded at a station immediately to the right of the fryer bank.
The fryer system turns out exceptionally consistent product thanks to on-board computers, one per vat, that track current oil temperatures and adjust fry-times accordingly.
Along the back wall, in the far corner of the grill area, you'll find the vertical broiler used for gyros meat. Next to that is the flattop griddle and charbroiler, followed by a warmer that holds cheese, marinara sauce, chili toppings and soup. Then comes another set of prep tables where sandwiches, burgers, appetizers and fries are finalized. A two-door reach-in freezer to the right of the back prep tableand within easy reach of the fryersstores seafood, fries, popcorn chicken and corndogs.
Roll It In And Hook It Up
A large part of the Cincinnati store's raison d'être lies in its ability to test various equipment options in a real-world setting.
"All the kitchen equipment is on wheels, with quick-disconnect gas, water and electricity hookups," says Nader Masadeh, executive v.p. and CFO. "We can reconfigure all the equipment (except the hood) in about two hours, if need be."
Recent tests have included a head-to-head comparison of two fryer makers' oil filtration systems (the current system prevailed), and a powdered product designed to clean and extend oil life (it worked, but not enough to justify its cost). An upcoming project will put to the test a gas fryer that uses 40% less oil than comparable models.
Current tests are focused on streamlining the charbroiler/griddle areaspecifically, dropping the charbroiler, with its open flame and higher energy use (not to mention heat output), in favor of switching to a single, larger griddle with a thermostat for more accurate temperature control.
"Using [just] the griddle would improve consistency while keeping the kitchen cooler," Masadeh says, who has his eye on an upgrade already. It's likely that future Buffalo Wings & Rings kitchens will be using a single 48"-wide griddle paired with a 12"-wide set of burners for cooking chili and chicken soup, both of which are made from scratch daily.
Next up for review will be the hood, which is currently a canopy-style unit. Buffalo Wings & Rings is working with its supplier to test newer model variable-speed hoods with built-in control systems.
"We try to look both forward and back as we upgrade equipment, so that existing franchisees have the option of upgrading to the new design," Masadeh says.
The Hands-On Classroom
The second purpose of the EastGate store lies in training new franchisees on all aspects of running their own Buffalo Wings & Rings restaurants. Trainees undergo an intensive six-week, six-days-a-week course that starts with classroom time, moves to observation and shadowing of kitchen employees, and ends with working the kitchen during service times.
To help trainees and store employees alike, the EastGate store is outfitted with both observation cameras and video monitors. The cameras, some nine in all (in the kitchen, dining room, hostess stand, office and storage area), can be monitored from classrooms at company headquarters or from the training area within the restaurant.
And the monitors, positioned strategically at the kitchen's three main stations, serve as the visual part of a computerized order-tracking system that has greatly improved efficiency and throughput at Buffalo Wings & Rings stores for the past year.
Cooks can touch onscreen bars to advance orders through the line. To save expediters from having to read an entire ticket, the system sends sandwich orders to the sandwich station and fryer orders to the fry station. Reports at the end of each day tally average cook times, prep times and more. The system has helped cut a good 4 mins. off ticket times, bringing lunch service order assembly down to 8 mins. and dinner down to less than 12 mins.
"Going forward, all new stores will use this system," Masadeh says. So far, three franchisees have added it as a retrofit.
FOH Gets A Facelift, Too
The front-of-house at the EastGate store also served as a testing spot for new décor. For example, the new and improved bar, with its illuminated shelves of liquor and glasses, is sleeker and more contemporary than those of older stores. The top shelves sport two 50" and one 56" HDTV screens (vs. the five smaller screens of older models). Flat, brushed-metal panels set into the front of the bar, in front of high stools, contrast with the dark wood details. Corrugated galvanized steel panels framed by the same dark wood cover the lower half of walls throughout the dining area, adding an edgy, industrial touch.
Less obvious changes lie in the lighting, flooring and tabletops. The lighting has been especially beefed up in the bar displays, where high-intensity LED lights promote the product while making glasses sparkle. The dining room floor is finished in 12"-square nonslip textured ceramic tiles rather than carpet (harder to keep clean) or the poured stained concrete of previous stores. And tabletops and the host stand were changed from dark mahogany to a curry yellow, lightening the overall look.
One thing that has remained the same, or actually increased, has been the number of TV monitors. The EastGate store has more than 30 high-def screens including those mounted at the bar. By contrast, smaller stores have about 25 screens.
"The goal is for people to be able to see as many screens as possible from any one seat," Masadeh says. All as they enjoy plenty of wings and rings.
Cincinnati's Buffalo Wings & Rings concept experienced two beginnings. The first launch was in 1988, when the sports bar concept was founded. It then grew over the next decade to about 26 locations before starting to sputter and shrink.
The second launch was in 2005, when the chain, by that point down to six stores, was acquired by three entrepreneurs: French businessman Philip Schram and two Buffalo franchisees, Nader Masadeh and Haytham David.
Now four years into its second life, the partners have totally revamped the Buffalo Wings & Rings brand, menu, operations and marketing. And life is good: The company generated revenues of $36 million in '08 from 44 stores, including 23 newly opened units. This year's revenues should hit $65 million with the addition of stores.
Buffalo Wings & Rings' expansion plans call for the opening of about 20 restaurants this year, in California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and Texas, to name a few new and developing markets. This year will also see the company's first of five international locations open in Kuwait and Jordan. Buffalo Wings & Rings currently serves its hot wings, burgers and beer at 47 restaurants in 20 states.
See our companion article Buffalo Wings & Rings Equipment.